Lefko: The Mariners are looking at a season-defining stretch

Jun 2, 2023, 1:43 AM

Seattle Mariners Jarred Kelenic...

Jarred Kelenic of the Seattle Mariners slides into third base against Texas on May 10, 2023. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners roll into June with momentum after a 7-3 homestand and their most wins in the month of May since the 2018 season.

Nothing in baseball occurs in a vacuum, though, and this year the collective strength of the American League has forced a loftier expectation on teams fighting for a playoff spot.

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A 29-27 record in the National League has you in a playoff spot, leading the NL Central, and maybe even a legitimate land claim to a few islands in the Pacific. Yet in the AL, all that record gets you is a sympathetic pat on the back and a “keep up the good work, you’re doing your best.”

There are signs that the Mariners are getting back to the core of what made them a playoff team a year ago. Two walk-off wins in the past four games are emblematic of an identity that was forged in the belief that the M’s would find a way to win if a game was close or tied in the late innings. A four-game win streak in games that have gone to extra innings also solidifies that resiliency and erases the questions that plagued them in the first month of the season when they lost their first five contests that went to extras.

There is one aspect from 2022 that hasn’t been replicated, however, and it will be what the Mariners have to fix if they are to get back to the playoffs: their record against other playoff contenders. Last season the Mariners were good – very good – when it came to facing teams with a winning record. Seattle was 38-33 against teams that finished over .500, second-best in that category of any team in the AL (only the Astros at 42-27 were better).

If 2022 was defined by the big series wins – sweeps of the Blue Jays and Padres, three series wins over the Astros in the first half, a 4-2 record against the Yankees, the stirring series against the Braves (you get the point, there were a lot of big moments) – then 2023 stands out for its definitive lack of signature victories. The Mariners’ lone series win this season against a team with a winning record came against the Astros at the start of May, while the losses have been to teams swirling around them in the playoff race (Angels, Blue Jays, Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees).

It’s a two-pronged benefit when you beat other good teams: the edge in playoff tiebreakers and the simple fact of a direct two-game swing one way or another in the standings. That becomes more pronounced this season, where a more balanced schedule in MLB means you’re going to see every good team in baseball and conversely have less chances to make up ground against division opponents.

The one month-plus remaining until the All-Star break will provide the biggest opportunity for the Mariners to gauge where they are in relation to playoff contenders, and it starts this weekend against one of the hottest teams in the league.

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June 2-4 at Rangers

The Mariners already dropped two of three to the AL West leaders at home, and now they go to Texas to face the team that has scored the most runs in baseball despite having played three fewer games than the Rays, who have scored the second-most. Oh, and the Rangers now feature Corey Seager back in their lineup.

MLB Network’s Jon Morosi joined Seattle Sports’ Wyman and Bob for his weekly conversation Thursday and mentioned that it’s a “strength on strength” matchup between the Mariners’ elite pitching and the Rangers’ sizzling offense. The Mariners have had trouble slowing down the Red Sox and Yankees’ offenses, but this weekend represents a massive opportunity to springboard into the rest of a brutally tough month.

“It’s the kind of series that can stamp you as a legitimate contender,” Morosi said. “If the Mariners find a way to take this series, it will send the entire month of June on the right trajectory.”

June 9-11 at Angels

For all the hype around Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, the most dangerous Angels hitter, at least when the Mariners play them, seems to be Luis Rengifo. After you get past Ohtani, this is not a good pitching staff. If the Mariners’ offense is going to pick up the slack for the pitching, this weekend series in Anaheim will be the one to do it. For two teams neck-and-neck right now – Los Angeles is 30-28, even with 29-27 Seattle in the division – the Mariners can’t afford to fall behind in both the standings and a potential tiebreaker.

June 20-22 at Yankees; June 23-25 at Orioles

This might be the single toughest stretch of the season and the litmus test for what kind of team these Seattle Mariners are going to be. We just witnessed what the Yankees’ offense did to the Mariners, and this return leg will kick off a six-game road trip. On the back end of it you get the Orioles, who have the third-best record in baseball and are the only team whose bullpen fWAR (3.4) is better than the M’s (3.3).

A 3-3 split of this trip would be ideal, and anything better likely will have the Mariners sitting in a wild card spot. On the other hand, two series losses here could widen the gap that the Mariners will have to close over the second half of the season.

July 6-9 at Astros

Yes, the Mariners host the MLB-best Rays before this from June 30-July 2, but that series isn’t as important to the totality of the playoff race for Seattle. Tampa is a likely division winner, so anything you get there is gravy – especially with what looms after.

All roads have led through Houston over the past six seasons, and whether the Astros will be atop the division or in a wild card spot, the Mariners must get through this team at some point in order to get back to the postseason. With a four-game series, you’re either coming out a wash or having made up a nice chunk of ground.

The timing of this series is also key as it will be the last thing that sits with the team heading into the All-Star break. As much as anything, the Mariners can make a statement if they pull off a second series win over Houston and set the tone for how the division race will play out the rest of the way.

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Lefko: The Mariners are looking at a season-defining stretch